British Culture Minister Andy Burnham was widely reported over the Christmas break for remarks in an interview to the Daily Telegraph in which he said he was considering giving film-style ratings to individual web sites, before adding:
“If you look back at the people who created the internet they talked very deliberately about creating a space that Governments couldn’t reach. I think we are having to revisit that stuff seriously now. It’s true across the board in terms of content, harmful content, and copyright. Libel is [also] an emerging issue.
“There is content that should just not be available to be viewed. That is my view. Absolutely categorical. This is not a campaign against free speech, far from it; it is simply there is a wider public interest at stake when it involves harm to other people. We have got to get better at defining where the public interest lies and being clear about it.”
He went on to tell the Telegraph that he is currently considering a range of new safeguards. Initially, as with copyright violations, these could be policed by internet providers. However, new laws may be threatened if the initial approach is not successful. He pointed to the success of the 9pm “watershed” on television, and said that his goal was for Internet providers to offer “child-safe” web services.
In analysing this proposal, it is important to be fair-minded. One needn’t make too much of the fact that when he says “This is not a campaign against free speech, far from it”, that’s precisely what it is. Nor should we dwell on the fact that truly objectionable content (like the routine bogeymen child pornography and terrorist material) are already illegal and would never get an age certificate under this scheme. Nor even should one be overly taken, as is the Telegraph editorial, with the notion that the Internet is impossible to regulate: if the government decide to pass a law demanding age certificates on web sites, then web sites based in Britain at least will indeed have to carry age ratings.
Burnham’s proposal isn’t completely absurd. It may be inconvenient to BBC iPlayer to have to apply age ratings to its programme content. It may make it delay even further American video services from launching in the UK. And it may make some video sites based on user-generated content untenable (although, curiously, it wouldn’t cause the (NSFW) pornography specialists much trouble). But it’s not impossible: some services even do this already.
The problem with the proposal is that much of the web isn’t about delivering a TV-like experience to the surfer. How would you even begin to classify a service like Google? Or Rapidshare? It’s not just a problem with user-generated content either: simple user voting can change the character of sites like Del.icio.us in a moment, as was apparent when Digg lost control of an irate user base.
If your service is actually a tool for allow end users to express themselves (like, say, Facebook) you’ve another problem: it is quite likely people under 18 who using the kind of language that Mr Burnham might find objectionable. Presumably Mr Burnham’s rating wouldn’t only be applied for bad language: racism, sexism, and cynicism about politicians are also matters of concern. But, like it or not, these sentiments do exist in society, and as such they are expressed in bars and bulletin boards, churches and chatrooms. We can use regulation to drive them out of our top-down broadcast media. From a regulatory point of view though, at least part of the Internet is more like a pub, football crowd or playground than it is like a TV programme.
“Cinema ratings for online content” sounds like an implementable policy. “People shouldn’t be allowed to talk online without a responsible adult present to make sure they don’t misbehave” does not. Unfortunately, they are the same policy.